Looking for a traditional canon-focused English MA-- does it exist?
January 21, 2011 7:57 PM   Subscribe

What is the best English MA grad school that focuses on literary forms and content, and literary canon? Secondarily, a PhD program that has a 'hidden' MA possible in this area?

The majority of the answers I've seen online (generally) are all about how I shouldn't bother getting an English MA (let alone trying to get an MA and then be certified to be a HS English teacher-- two total doozies). My plan is what it is, currently. To wit, I want to get a really solid grounding in 'traditional' English studies, which I haven't done all through HS and college, believe it or not. I'm a voracious reader and quite well self-educated (and I read some classics as a child), but mostly I'm a genre reader. I went to an 'alternative' HS and college where there were no real 'standards'. I realize that you don't need in-depth knowledge to teach HS English; I want it anyway. I want to teach HS English my way. If I have to, I'll start my own school to do it. So that's the plan.

Unfortunately, Ivy League English programs (which I may get into-- maybe-- as I'm doing extremely well in my funny little alt school so far) all seem to offer PhD programs only. I heard it's possible to get an MA as a hidden 'drop out' option if you sign up for a PhD. Is this true? Regardless, an actual PhD is out of the question, as I'm already 32. A 2-year program is ok, but ideally it'd be 1 year, and then 1 year for a Masters in Teaching.

In any program, it'd be a huge plus if they offer a healthy aid package with TA positions offered.

Primarily, however, I'd just like to get some suggestions of actual MA programs that offer a rigorous, 'traditional' curriculum while offering a possibility of interdisciplinary study & with interdepartmental ties of some sort. The former aspect is more important than the latter, but I'm not some fuddy-duddy-- I don't want to just do a Renaissance lit thesis or something. I just want the best of both worlds. Ideally minus the cult lit theory inundating everything, though I know that's asking too much. Anyway, some rock solid year's-worth of courses in foundational English-language literary tradition is a minimum.

If know this exists-- U of Oregon's program comes pretty close (it seems). I'm also considering just getting an MAT with a larger-than-usual concentration in English study, and the best so far seems to be Brown's MAT. However, that program only has 3 courses for the MAT.

My research interests are folklore, visual/narrative semiotics, the graphic novel, traditional and fantastic narratives (and narrative theory), children's lit, the Romantics, Celtic, Native American & Norse mythology and culture. I also like interdisciplinary research with connections to ethnography, anthropology, philosophy or psychology.

I've considered non-English MAs in Folklore like Berkeley's program, as its interdisciplinary nature is very appealing, but it has no English content. I'm currently thinking of U of Oregon's English with a Folklore emphasis and U of Florida's English & comics MA program (but that has little to no canon grounding). I'd take an English & semiotics focus in a second, but there's no such thing. It'd be great if I could self-construct a focus such as that in traditional narratives/folklore.

posted by reenka to Education (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
With all the kindness in the world, as one alternative-college grad who took a long time to figure out the disciplinary and institutional structure of the rest of academia to another, I have to tell you that all the different things you're looking for and talking about at once make this question seem pretty incoherent and almost impossible to answer. You can't do a master's degree in Everything Studies. Literary criticism is one thing (with many different methods and approaches, actually), and folklore is another. You should talk to your advisors at your "funny little alt school" — in fact, you should talk to all the faculty you can — about the different disciplines and programs and the differences between them, and work on clarifying exactly what you want to study and how until you can talk about it a lot more concretely and precisely than this before you do anything else, and before you even think about actually going to graduate school. Take a look at the (outdated but still useful) guidebook The Real Guide to Grad School too, especially its discussions of the different disciplines and their institutional histories.
posted by RogerB at 8:22 PM on January 21, 2011 [7 favorites]

To elaborate on RogerB's smart and correct words, I think you need to start imagining academia as a pyramid. The base is really broad, and that's where you are now -- taking all kinds of courses in all kinds of fields. But as you go along, you have to narrow in, rather than broaden out.

The kinds of programs you are imagining certainly exist -- but as money makers, not as fully-funded programs that pay you to be there. If they are paying you to be there, you are going to be pursuing focused study in a traditional (or at least semi-traditional) discipline.
posted by Forktine at 8:45 PM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I heard it's possible to get an MA as a hidden 'drop out' option if you sign up for a PhD. Is this true?

Technically, yes. You can enter a PhD program and simply drop out when you have enough credits to meet their Master's requirement. However, I'd really advise you not to plan to take this route. In order to do this, you'd have to get into a very competitive PhD program in the first place. I'm not suggesting that you couldn't do this, but it would likely take much more work for you to be competitive among that pool of applicants than you want to do. Getting into one of those programs has very little to do with grades. Virtually all the applicants will have great grades. A competitive PhD program isn't going to be interested in you unless you can clearly demonstrate that you're interested in a career as a scholar, and usually, that takes all kinds of legwork in multiple areas that are a waste of your time if you simply want a broader educational foundation.

My advice is that you look into a funded Master's program in English. A little bit of research should turn up some decent, well-respected options for you to consider. You'll be able to start getting a broader English education in that setting, and you can certainly go on to an MAT program from there. I'm sure that many schools with funded MA programs also offer MAT programs, and that would probably be a plus for you. You won't have to move and/or you may be able to take some extra classes for free that you can count towards that future degree.
posted by theantikitty at 8:47 PM on January 21, 2011

PS: Of course, getting into a funded MA in English is going to take a strong application as well. You should start talking to your professors about what you can do right now to strengthen your application. However, it's less of an uphill battle than an ivy-league PhD.
posted by theantikitty at 8:51 PM on January 21, 2011

Thanks for all the feedback so far!

I realize in retrospect that was semi-incoherent, which is a shame since I actually do have it in list format also, and it boils down to this:

- Looking for a funded-option MA in English with a traditional/canonical focus available.
- Research mostly decided on folklore/traditional narratives work, 'traditional' back up being the Romantics. [The reason I look for an interdisciplinary flair is that folklore is pretty rare, but it's an interdisciplinary discipline, and there *are* English departments with an interdisciplinary folklore concentration and funding available. That's U of Oregon.]
- I was hoping for specific suggestions of schools to check out; the reason I mentioned so many interests wasn't to say I literally wanted to Do It All but to make the chances someone would know something about *one* of those ideas for a concentration/research focus.

But again, thanks! I will indeed talk to my professors: this isn't my only outlet. :)
posted by reenka at 9:36 PM on January 21, 2011

Primarily, however, I'd just like to get some suggestions of actual MA programs that offer a rigorous, 'traditional' curriculum while offering a possibility of interdisciplinary study & with interdepartmental ties of some sort.

My research interests are folklore, visual/narrative semiotics, the graphic novel, traditional and fantastic narratives (and narrative theory), children's lit, the Romantics, Celtic, Native American & Norse mythology and culture. I also like interdisciplinary research with connections to ethnography, anthropology, philosophy or psychology.

I was totally with you on programs that emphasize the canon. And then I read your interests, which are hardly traditional. A traditional program might include Romantics, not so much Native American and Norse mythology, folklore, and definitely not the graphic novel. An master's degree is a generalist degree, but I think perhaps you overestimating the amount of classes you take in an MA program. A typical load might be 3 classes semester for three semesters and then with a thesis focus your last semester, with perhaps some kind of comprehensive exam in between. So really that's ten or twelve classes, maybe a few more if you stretch it out. And probably you won't be able to take more than one or two classes outside of your department, and you may have a couple of required classes like Research Methods.

So why not look for a program that offers more flexibility? Every good program will have a Shakespearean, a Romantic, and all the usual suspects, plus it may have some more interdisciplinary options and folklore, children's lit, and graphic novels.

(Sorry, started writing this before I saw your response. I'd just look up the best English programs out there and then look at individual websites to see if they fund MAs.)
posted by bluedaisy at 9:44 PM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's not clear from your question why your grounding in canonical English lit or folklore (and I separate these because they're very different things, and I suspect it will be almost impossible for you to find a program that will encourage combining the two) needs to be in the context of a degree-seeking program. Why not do an MAT degree with a concentration in English and combine that with self-directed reading and perhaps a few carefully selected courses external to the degree? Your voracious reading could come in handy here, and you could even use courses like those Yale offers online to help you choose what to read and give you a sense of what contemporary scholarship might be saying about those texts.

As for specific schools, you might be interested in the MAT program at BC.
posted by dizziest at 10:18 PM on January 21, 2011

"a funded MA in English"

I've never heard of one. For MFA's yes, but not for English lit.

If you get into a PhD program w/o an MA your first step will be two years of coursework towards an MA, and generally you will be expected to take "core" courses in roughly four out of five or six areas -- 20th century and/or Modern, 19th century Britsh/Romantic lit., 18th century British lit (think development of the novel), a Literary/Critical Theory course, Shakespeare (they won't call it that, but probably something like "early modern English literature), and then Old English and/or Middle English (think "stuff before Shakespeare.")

That's a rough sketch, but in any program the idea is that an MA proves general scholarly knowledge of a lot (although certainly not all) English lit.

All you can really do is apply widely to PhD programs who employ professors that you like to work with. That's the only way you'll get funded to study.

And you should. Go for it. But it's time to get more specific about your interests. A PhD is about digging your little niche (grave?), the MA is there to show you've got decent enough chops to handle an "Introduction to English Lit." type 101 course in the future.

As for dropping out of a PhD program after getting the MA (which is what I did) I have no regrets. I knew the PhD wasn't for me and I simply spoke to the department head and voila, an extra PhD program spot opened up for the Fall. As a PhD candidate you will be paid very little and may or may not get health insurance. You will teach a lot and grade a lot and do a number of thankless tasks. This is how the modern university works -- you are a workhorse who may or may not complete the PhD first, and a budding scholar second.

Perhaps even better advice -- look into the dwindling number of World Lit. and/or Comparative Lit. programs.
posted by bardic at 5:06 AM on January 22, 2011

You might be being picky at the wrong time. Why not apply to Oregon, Brown, Berkeley, and Florida, and maybe another school or two that you haven't mentioned but which covers some of your areas of interest, and then let these factors narrow it down for you:

- where you got in
- who offered the best funding package
- whose professors seem most interested in you during the post-offer, pre-acceptance 'courting' process
posted by Beardman at 6:40 AM on January 22, 2011

U of Florida's English & comics MA program (but that has little to no canon grounding)

I got my MFA from UF's English Department in 2009. During the two years that I was there, a total of zero graduate comics classes were offered (a fact that was often argued about on our graduate listserv). I have no reason to think anything has changed since. I mean, you'd have plenty of chances to take courses in other subjects, but really, this is not the droid you're looking for.

Frankly, I suspect what is likely to happen if you go about pursuing your plan is this: you'll get to a school, be all jazzed for how they market the classes, and then be surprised and/or disappointed that, even in a more apparently canon-focused program, you'll be required to take a great number of classes away from your interests even if they're supposedly catering to your interests. Like a buttload of classes on literary theory (my "Joyce and cultural studies" class that I took during grad school? Much heavier on the cultural studies than on the Joyce). I think you'll likely feel resentful of the time you'll likely be dedicating to stuff you don't want to read, and I also feel that you'll likely feel disadvantaged when compared to your22-year-old peers in that you haven't read all of that canon literature yet.

I also think that, like bluedaisy says, your goals are pretty hazy. Do you want to study folklore, or the canon? Those are completely different things. Ditto, comic books.

I'm going to speak frankly, as someone who had unrealistically lofty and broad aspirations after college (among them, "people don't really read poetry anymore? I'm going to just change the world of poetry so that people do!!"). I think you'd be much, much happier first pursuing an independent reading list of the canon in your spare time (maybe finding or forming a book club to facilitate discussion?), mixed in with the books of your independent interest, and then going back to school for a few months to get your certification. This will be cheaper, a better career move (you could get an MAT, but it's really not necessary and in some districts will make them more reluctant to hire you because they'd have to pay you more). If you really want to study the canon in an academic setting, there are programs catering to this--St. Johns graduate program is one--but they're often expensive and I doubt they'll really help you for your career goals, either.

Finally, I want to add something that I wish people had told me: you don't need to be in the academy to be educated, to read widely, or to have familiarity with the canon. You can and should be doing this on your own.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:47 AM on January 22, 2011

This is a list of funded English MA programs. It's a few years old, but should give you some ideas.

Aside from that, I'm not sure I understand your question. You say you want a grounding in the traditional canon, but are interested in wildly divergent, non-canonical fields. You probably need to come down on one side or the other. As Bluedaisy suggests, an MA is pretty short. Most programs will let you get a solid background in the traditional fields, with opportunities for research limited to the papers you will write for your seminars. Being able to study Norse gods would be a rare bonus. Have you spent time looking at the websites for different programs? Look at their requirements, and the courses they offer. Not have in their catalogs, but actually schedule.

On preview, what PhoBWanKenobi said.

As someone who is studying English Renaissance lit I'm amused by your "fuddy-duddy" classification!
posted by apricot at 9:06 AM on January 22, 2011

My brother is in a PhD program in English at a typical, well-regarded state university and he told me that the MA program essentially exists to fund the PhD students, meaning the MA students pay out the ass in tuition so the PhD students can go for free. Sad, but probably true in most cases. A lot of Master's programs are rip offs. Probably the biggest exception to this is a Masters in education that allows you to become a certified/licensed/whatever teacher. Sorry if that's not what you wanted to hear.
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 9:09 AM on January 22, 2011

Have you considered graduate school in Canada? (I'm assuming that you're American) I wanted to get an MA in English Lit, and decided not to go if I couldn't get it paid for. As the Livejournal listing upthread shows, terminal MA programs with funding are fairly uncommon in the States. I applied to Georgetown, Wake Forest, and the University of Victoria in British Columbia. I ended up in BC for a year, fully funded, and had a great time. It seems much more common to have terminal MA programs in Canadian schools, whereas in here it seems as if the majority of programs with funding are joint MA/PhD programs.

In fact, one of my best friends in the Victoria English program has a one-year MAT from the University of British Columbia and decided she wanted an MA in English as well, to better teach high school.

Also, just as some anecdata, I entered my one year 3-term MA program with the intent to focus on cultural studies, critical theory, and the literature of the 20th century British Empire. I ended up writing a Master's thesis on a quirky comedy from 1553 and the ways it played with written communication. I include that only to say that I was completely not looking for a program that foregrounded the canon or mandated a historical spread of coursework or whatnot, and ended up switching my focus halfway through to a much more 'traditional' area. Grad school is what you make of it.

Without going on and on, I have to agree with those that have stated that your interests don't actually sound that canonical, at least as I think of it. I mean, you want to study "visual/narrative semiotics," graphic novels, and pursue interdisciplinary research with critical theory? That's kind of where that sort of research lives, at least in my experience.

Anyhow, take a look at some foreign schools. You might be surprised at what you find. (Also, much like apricot, I am amused at being labelled a fuddy-duddy in my research interests.)
posted by scdjpowell at 12:27 PM on January 22, 2011

Thanks again for all the (somewhat contradictory) advice. :)

I see that the thing most people agree on is that my interests so far don't jibe very well with my stated goal in seeking out grad school. This is true. However, I will say that the major reason I can't tell you what specific period I want to study in the canon is that I haven't studied the canon enough (yet), outside experience with 18-19th century novels (and Austen, Scott, etc are only recently considered canonical), and a bit of Shakespeare. I will improve this situation somewhat in future undergrad classes, but not enough. Thus I can only say what my interests have been so far. However, I don't feel I actually would need to go to school to study stuff I'm already well-versed in-- it'd just be a nice bonus.

The opinion I must seriously consider is the idea of simply reading canon lit on my own time. However, one way to look at (funded) grad school is the idea of creating the time and space to explore literature and to frame it in the context of a dialogue (teaching and seminar). I feel that reading stuff I'm not always intrinsically interested in (and I may or may not *want* to read Chaucer, say) is a lot more rewarding in a seminar setting. I believe school is more than being told which books/articles to read. It is a structure that enables something greater than the sum of its parts, in terms of learning. Hopefully, at least. :)
posted by reenka at 12:54 PM on January 22, 2011

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